Thora tells us about her life working as a tweeny maid, being a home help, and the charity work which led her to receiving an MBE from Prince Charles.
I started school in 1921 when I was five and left when I was 15. In those days when you were 11 you went to the top school and along with my brothers and sisters I used to have to cycle the two and a half miles to school in Leiston.
My mother, when she started work was a cook at the Dulwich Priory, with the monks. When us children came along she was at home.
My father was a gardener in a big house so after I left school I went to work as a tweeny maid. A tweeny maid helps wherever the occasion arises. I used to help in the kitchen, dining room and upstairs. I was learning the trade and in the end I became a parlour maid.
The gentleman who owned the big house was a Sir, he was a landowner and the house had 15 staff. My father was a general gardener, he did the lawns, the flowers, vegetable and the fruit and we had a gardener’s house.
Being a tweeny maid
We worked seven days a week, and sometimes we got Sunday afternoon off. We did get one day off a week, but not always the same day. I started work at 6.30am and was lucky if I got to bed by 10pm.
My first job of the day was to clean the fireplaces in the dining room and the drawing room, they were cleaned with black lead. My morning uniform was a blue striped dress and a white apron and we had a sackcloth apron over the top to keep it clean. In the afternoon my uniform was a green dress, coffee coloured caps and aprons, very smart they were.
I had to change uniforms because I had to go into the dining room to serve the lunch.
There were three parlour maids who served lunch for the Sir and Lady and the guests, they were big lunches. We would serve things like sirloin of beef, game pies, whole salmon trimmed with cucumber. Lovely salmon on a big dish with cucumber round and tomatoes across the top, it was lovely. They had a dessert, oh yes, Sir, he had an apple pie, whatever was served for dessert he had apple pie. The apples were grown at the hall.
After lunch we cleared the table and there would be all the washing up to do and cleaning the silver and putting that away in a big silver safe. The safe was like walking into a big cupboard lined with green baize, with shelves in. There was a lot of silver in there.
They had afternoon tea at about half past three and then an evening meal at about 8pm. That was a lighter meal, more salads and often vegetarian meals. I was 15 and I was on duty all through the day, at the end of the day I would say, ‘I’m finished now. I’m going to bed. Goodnight’.
We lived in, the three parlour maids had a bedroom at one end of the house and we had our own bathroom, which the three of us shared.
These were the days when staff were expected to go to church. We didn’t have to go with the Sir and Lady, we went on our own and there was a place in church specifically for the staff to sit.
When we came back it was lunchtime, if you were lucky enough to have your day off then you went off at 2pm. If not you’d serve tea and dinner again at night. I earned 8/3d a week.
Free time and socialising
I did go out in my free time, yes. I did a lot of walking and I had a boyfriend with a bicycle so we used to go to dances, the music was piano and drum. Talking of dances, there used to be a staff ball. Our big house would hold a ball and they’d invite all the staff from the other big houses and those houses would do the same and invite us. And then the owners would wait on them. The dances were a way of keeping in contact with servants, finding out what was going on. They were very nice and I enjoyed them.
I had my own dance dress, I’ve still got it, it’s green with black stripes. I’ve kept it all, I’ve got all my uniforms. I have got a very interesting collection, I’ve got all my caps, aprons, the white ones, the blue ones, and the coffee coloured afternoon ones. I did take great pride and…..I’m a hoarder! I’ve got some wonderful things, I’ve got two nightdresses made of parachute silk during the war.
Progressing from tweeny maid to parlour maid
I didn’t stay there too long, I was there for about two and a half years and then I got another job, as a parlour maid. I got an increase in wages, I got 12/6d, but I didn’t stay there very long either because the lady of the house, she was, I mustn’t say anything too much……But she wasn’t respectful of staff. Everything was locked up and everything was dished out, so much butter and sugar. I just went there to work temporarily for a little while and then I got married.
I met my husband one night going to the cinema. I walked three miles from my home to the cinema, we saw Scott of the Antarctic, so you can tell how long ago that was.
My husband was a bricklayer and he worked for a company. We rented a house for 10/6d a week. I stopped work for a while whilst I had the children, I had seven and I was busy looking after them, that was hard work, I would say the hardest bit was doing the washing but I love washing. I had an old copper tub with the fire underneath, I didn’t have a mangle so I had to wring them by hand before hanging them outside on the line. I then ironed them with box irons. A box iron is a metal contraption in the shape of an iron which is hollow. You then have a solid lump the same shape as the iron which you put in the fire and heat it red hot and put it inside the box iron and it heats you see.
Then the war came you see, so that made a big difference.
The arrival of the war and being a home help
During the war my husband was in the Air Force, he returned to bricklaying after the war. Living in the countryside we didn’t see the real dangers of war, we didn’t get bombed. We were well fed, we had our rations and my father being a gardener meant that we had plenty of vegetables and fruit. We had chickens and we also kept a pig.
At the beginning of the war they were asking for home helps. Like care assistants, but they were home helps in those days. I said that I would go back to work if I could take my small daughter with me, which I did.
You helped every age group, older people, mothers and children, You just went into somebody’s house and did what they normally did. I started early, 9am and cycled around. I mostly used to go to one house for a whole day. I used to go to a mother who’d just had a baby and she’d probably got two more children. Husbands were away at war.
The work didn’t really change much whilst I was there, you just did what a mother would normally do. It was mainly a domestic role. If you went in and you wanted some hot water and there wasn’t any you had to fill the copper and if there wasn’t any coal you had to forage round and find some wood to light the fire. I also bathed people and washed them.
I wore a white overall. Someone would call me and ask if I would go to a certain person and if you said no they would give you someone else. I worked for all sorts of people.
I was employed by Social Services and people applied for help. I really enjoyed the work, because I’ve always loved working with people. I can’t remember what I got paid, not a lot, and I carried on until I was 70, until I retired.
Moving from Suffolk to Norfolk, charity work and receiving an MBE
I moved from Suffolk into Norfolk, to Harleston and I did a lot of charity work, helping with people with learning difficulties and the elderly. I used to organise monthly coach trips for the elderly, and once a year I used to organise a week long holiday for them.
I’m not really sure who it was but someone put me forward for the award of an MBE. I went to London, with my son, we hired a taxi all the way from Harleston. We went straight to the palace. We walked up the big stairs up to the picture gallery and when we were in the gallery we had to wait until we were called to receive the reward. That was four years ago in 2005, I’m 93 now so I was 89 then. I had been doing the work in the community right up until then.
Before I had my stroke and came here to The Nunnery I used to go out night-sitting. If anybody was going to be alone I used to go and sit with them. I used to go to people at night at about 9 to half past 9. I spent hours at night reading the bible to one lady. I wasn’t nervous at all about doing night-sitting, but I did have some funny patients sometimes. One old lady always used to say that the house was on fire
Although I say it, they do miss me in Harleston. I saw a friend of mine yesterday and she said, ‘Oh dear, I hope you’re going to get well because we want to start going out again’.
It has been a life of service but I have benefitted. I have got many friends and I always say to myself, ‘Whenever I went to Harleston if I knocked on a door I would get asked in’.
I’ve enjoyed my life. Full stop. I enjoyed my school life and I had a wonderful life before school, and I have started to write my life story.
Thora Hickford (1916-2010) talking to WISEArchive on 16th June 2009 in Diss.
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